Lai Omotola, chancellor of E-Boot Camp Limited, runs a foremost infrastructure company with a diversified project portfolio. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, he spoke on a number of issues including his pet project ‘Think Entrepreneurship Programme’ which kicked off last Friday, saying that it would radically transform Nigeria’s domestic economy in the next decade. He is targeting I million entrepreneurs in 10 years. The entrepreneur stressed the need for change of mindset of many Nigerian business people whose habit has always been to squander their profits without ploughing back anything. He insists that it is not the politicians that will build Nigeria but entrepreneurs. Excerpts:
You are an entrepreneur and also follow political developments in the country. What are you up to this time around? Are you considering contesting any political position?
Ordinarily, on a day like this it would have been proper to join the bandwagon of some young person seeking election to become the President of Nigeria but after due consideration and in-depth study of our situation I have come to realise that the solution to our problems does not lie 100 percent on the person that becomes the president.
Whoever becomes the President in 2019, will have greater challenges ahead and the next four years will not bring us out of the woods; this is the bitter truth to ponder on.
Why do you take this position?
I take this position for the following reason. We have a budget of about N8trillion out of which N1.2trillion is to service debt, about 70percent goes to recurrent expenditure and less than 25percent goes to capital project. When you look at the budget performance of capital project, it’s less than 50percent and then you realise that the budget has not been passed up till now. So let us assume that the budget is passed by end of May. We have entered the rainy season and for the next 5 months it will rain and there is little contractors can do till October if climate change does not make it worse; therefore construction work will commence in October and by December, construction companies will go on holiday; tentatively we have two months of construction. This suggests to me that the budget on the side of capital project has failed even before it’s signed. We need massive infrastructure development to leap this economy and sadly this will continue to be the routine for a very long time.
Furthermore, the Federal Government will continue to be burdened by labour for increment in wages across all sectors of the economy; there is no sign that 2/3 of states owing salaries will clear all backlog in the next four years even as additional arrears continue to pile up. On the exchange side we are sending so much to hold the rate at N365/dollar and some people have said the CBN governor is a genius in stabilising the naira against the dollar. Our infrastructure has not improved tremendously and business continues to collapse under poor infrastructure.
The above scenario suggests that the solution is for government to improve on revenue and borrow more which is what this government is doing. Get more people into tax net and borrow more money to stimulate the economy but as we are all witnesses, it has achieved little not to say nothing.
Today, 90percent of our nation’s problem is our economy. A bad economy will produce joblessness, hunger and insecurity in the land.
Why do you believe so much in entrepreneurship?
Thank you. Our ‘Think Entrepreneurial Programme’ is a more robust solution to our economic woes as a country. All over the world, big economies have always been propelled by private sector, led by entrepreneurs. It is entrepreneurs that build economy and not government. What the government does is to create policies that will be pro-business and not anti business. The government of today is on the driver’s seat driving the economy which will not work. Entrepreneurs built America; namely, Rockefeller, J.P Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt; these are men who used innovation to build America and not the American government; the government only partnered to make it successful.
Therefore, Nigeria can’t be different and over the years, we have seen entrepreneurs rise to the occasion and also seen entrepreneurs fall at the loudest ovation. We see the impact of Dangote to the economy. Just recently, he stated that when he completes his refinery it would be 23 billion dollars bigger than the Nigerian budget. The government awaits the completion of the same refinery to end fuel importation. He said he has paid over N250billion in taxes and would be N1.2trillion in the next 5 years. You can imagine what this country will look like if we have 100 persons like Dangote.
This is the target of the think entrepreneurship training programme we are introducing to get 1 million people to commence entrepreneurship and in the next 10 years produce businesses that are in billions turnover. We will demystify entrepreneurship and make it friendly. Our belief is that if we can positively change the mindset of the Nigerian entrepreneur then we can build the most robust economy.
With the potentials we have in our country if we are able to liberate the entrepreneurial spirit in this country then in the next 2 decades Nigeria should be number five largest economy in the world.
You said 100 percent solution does not lie with the President; but we all know that different sectors of the economy read the body language of the president; for instance, the day he declared his re-election ambition, the capital market lost huge amount of money; many people believe that why we are where we are today is because of the inability of the president to take certain steps, some tangible actions toward changing things. Again, how do you hope to achieve this target of 1million entrepreneurs in 10 years; is it by providing the technical knowhow or providing the training, or what?
Yes, it is true that people will look at the body language of Mr. President to determine whether to invest or not to invest. They want to see the policy direction of government and see if it is going to be favourable or not. Every businessman also knows that policy summersault of government adversely affects business in the country. That is fundamental. Many businesses have even collapsed as a result of government policies. But you see again, as an entrepreneur even in war-torn Syria people are still doing business there. Even in Somalia, businesses are still going on there. What I am saying as an entrepreneur is that even in this country that we all complain about, the people that have taken over the economy are the foreigners. The foreigners; don’t they look at the body language of Mr. President?
They also do. But if you look at the results that the foreigners are posting, doing business in Nigeria you will be amazed. Again, ask anybody that is taking flight all over the world, 10 percent of the passengers are coming into the countries to do business. So, what are we saying from that perspective? Regardless of the body language of the president; regardless of what the economy is about to turn out to be, certain people will still be successful whether the president is dancing ‘azonto’ or dancing ‘Assurance.’ Do you understand? Certain people will still say; ‘we have seen where he is going, we understand where we are going to’. So, the purpose of an entrepreneur is to be able to diagnose that look; this is where these people want to go; and in order for me to be safe, I have to look at the other way.
So, it is not enough for an entrepreneur to say because the body language of the President is not this way, he is not going to do something.
Whether the body language of the president is funny or not, you are going to end up paying your bills.
So, what’s the message I want to pass across? The message is that irrespective of the situation in governance, innovative entrepreneurs find their way out. That’s what I am trying to establish here.
Let us put it on a default that government is sick.
Let us put it on a default that we don’t even expect anything from the government. And that is what is happening. I want to tell you that 99.9 percent of the people are disconnected from government, because if they had not been disconnected and government has not passed a budget till May, how are the people surviving then? The people are going about their normal businesses. If they were totally connected to the government there would be uproar. There would be serious issues in the country; so, do you understand that perspective? So, whatever the government is doing; if they do it well it is complementary. If they don’t do it well, you put it at default that that’s how you are going to run.
This is because the Lebanese, the Chinese, the Indians are still building factories here, even when the body language of the President is not what people may have expected.
How do you intend to raise 1 million entrepreneurs?
You see, what we are trying to do is not something new; but at the same time, it is just something that is simply unique. In every business you have two entities; you have the business and the business owner. The business is a limited liability company; the business owner is the CEO; but you see the business owner needs to be alright for the business to be okay. If the business owner begins to think otherwise or his character is flawed; that business will collapse. So, our own emphasis is not in the business. It is on the business owner. The problem we have in the country today is the mindset of the entrepreneurs. They are the ones that sit down with politicians to inflate contracts and not even execute the project. Indigenous companies have over the years secured contracts running into billions of naira, but you know what? There is no indigenous company that has equipment like Julius Berger. Our own contractors, instead of using profits to buy equipment, they use profits to do weddings and parties. You see a Chinese that is in business; you see the way he dresses, you will not know he has so much money, but give an average Nigerian the same money, he would be moving in convoy. They don’t understand the way the game runs. So, how would your business be sustainable when profits that are supposed to go into building equipment are wasted; because without equipment you cannot be efficiently productive?
And when you look across all our sectors, the reason Nigerians can’t be competitive is lack of equipment.
In construction, even in tailoring, there are some stitches today that cannot be done in Nigeria because there are no equipment. So, no matter how good or how creative the tailor is, he cannot bring out those final stitches because the equipment is not there. Again, is it because there is no money? No. It is about priority. You find out that in printing, some people go as far as Lebanon and China to go and print; because the final output, the equipment is not here. Even when you come to the Nollywood, you find that some people leave Nigeria to South Africa to go and shoot because the equipment is not here. Is it that they cannot get the equipment here? The problem is that you see some of them spending N300 million on a wedding for just one day. They call a comedian – a joker- just for 5 minutes, they pay him N10 million! So, you see that the entrepreneurial mindset is defective, that they are misplacing priorities. Today, AMCON is sitting on N3.5 trillion loan that has gone bad. Why? Entrepreneurs took the money and they started dancing ‘azonto’ everywhere. If they had bought equipment; if they had built industrial parts, if they had built manufacturing parts for which all the money was meant, this economy would have moved further. Today, the money is stuck and the MD of AMCON said that the people owing them are the ones flying in private jets. So, that’s the entrepreneur’s mindset. He is owing banks billions of naira but is still flying private jet. When Bill Gates came to Nigeria, did you see any private jet that brought him in? So, this is the mindset we want to change; 99 percent of our billionaires today were made by government patronage. It makes no sense that somebody says that he is an entrepreneur and became a billionaire by being a contractor to the government. All the billionaires in America (at least, 1– 100) all of them sell products.
But check our own billionaires, government gave them contracts of N100 billion and they automatically became politicians. We must change that direction; that mindset.
We need to tell our people that if they want to make money, it is not by going into politics, but by going into business and you do the business big time.
The money will come. How do we now want to get 1 million entrepreneurs? By the time we begin to preach our message – we are starting with audience of 100 Friday (last Friday) a time will come that when we begin to talk; we will be talking across multiple centres online. So what it means is that our dealership is not only restricted to Lagos. To us this project is like evangelism. We are evangelising that whether you like it or not, a time is coming when you will mind your own business. And the earlier people begin to think about it the better for them. We believe we will meet our 1 million target because we are going to be having multiple viewing centres across the country. As we begin to train people, we begin to get ‘disciples’ that will also be carrying the message to other people. You must begin to think entrepreneurship as the final way for your financial independence.
The important thing is that anybody we come in contact with, we must impress upon that individual that there is need for him/her to be an entrepreneur now.
You can be an entrepreneur even while you are working or towards when you want to retire.
You speak about entrepreneurship as cure-all. We have seen businesses go down in the last three years, because of harsh operating environment. Do you see future of entrepreneurship in Nigeria, say, in the next five years, if the situation remains as it is now?
In the next five years, and I want it to be on record, the best we can have is to maintain where we are; the best we can have is that things should not deteriorate beyond where we are. That is the best for us. There can’t be any upward movement in terms of the economy. The best we can get is just remain as we are now. Remember that when Fashola came in as a minister, he was talking about electricity and that he wanted to increase tariff. I made certain pronouncements. I said this electricity; if they gave Fashola the next five years he would not be able to solve the problem there. It is on record. Where are we today? Electricity is not about body language, it is about execution. Any one that has taken time to look at it deeply will know that if we just maintain it as it is, we are doing our best. There’s no movement up; the movement is going down but we have to hold it. It is just simple to know. More than ever before government has borrowed money and the money is not free lunch. If you are not paying it you are going to be servicing it. So, don’t see anything dramatic happening. If the oil price goes to $100 per barrel, we will still be where we are. Has the oil price not risen from $30 to $77 as at today? Have you seen any difference? Those are the questions you should ask yourself. When the oil price was thirty something, we said we were suffering because it was thirty something; but now it is $77, have you seen any margin even in the pump price?
The truth of the matter is that until this economy becomes a productive and not a consumptive one; we can’t begin to talk about growth. A lot of people are not into productive means. Look at this programme we want to do, the efforts and thinking going into it, the meetings and the stakeholders we have to put together, but some people don’t even do that, yet they make more money than us by just selling dollar. They have access to official rate; they collect CBN rate every week, 1 million dollar at N305 and go to the black market and sell at N365; do you need an office to do that? Do you need staff? And these are billionaires; is that a productive thing? Ordinary Nollywood, to produce 30 minutes’ movie, do you know how many people you will call together to be part of that service? That’s productive means.
So, let’s not deceive ourselves. If there’s no shift we would just be wasting our time; Mark my words, if anybody comes in aside Buhari, you’ll begin to hear again ‘why is this man behaving like this; why, why, why? It is time for us to go back to the root of our problem. Since 1960, things have continued to degenerate. Since I was born, my parents have continued to tell me that Nigeria is not good. While as a child they were saying the same thing. Since 1960, we have never seen any government that we can say this one has done well. The only comparison has always been in regret. ‘O, the former person was even better than this one!’ It has always been getting worse and worse. In the next five years, let us not deceive ourselves, we will have to pray, let us maintain where we are.
Some people say that going by the suffering in the land, President Buhari’s ambition to return in 2019 is not in the interest of the country; what is your take?
You see Nigeria is divided into North and South. What they see in the North is different from what they see in the South. The progression in the North is different from the progression in the South. What you call poverty in the South is not what is called poverty in the North.
In the South, if I am not able to go for summer this year, I will say the country is bad; things are terrible. If I am not able to change my car in two years I will say things are bad. But those are not the yardstick for those people in the North. What you call poverty here is luxury to them, and all of them are entitled to one vote. Now, because of education in the South, you would reduce the number of children you would have because you know that training up a child now is like building a house. But the same mentality may not be for the illiterate because he does not see any essence in sending anybody to school. So, where is the followership of the illiterate?
And I tell people, if I say I am a leader I need to see the quality of the people following me, because if they are not enlightened they would just be hailing whatever I do or say. The essence of education is to achieve three things- some people stop at number one; some at two and not many people get to three.
The essence of education is to read and write. That’s number one. Number two is for you to comprehend – that is being able to understand what you read. The third and final one is for you to be analytical. What is analysis? A man may be saying something, but what you are hearing is not really what he is saying. What is coming out of his mouth is not really what he is trying to say. So, that’s why they say, news analysis. Someone must come to break down the communication – bringing out the intent and purpose of what is coming out.
That is the final stage of education and not so many people have that. So, based on the analysis above, Buhari will come back. He would come back because we have the majority people that cannot sit down to analyse the case, say, if this man comes back, will he be able to deliver the dividends? This is because they don’t have that skill and the few people that have it, will they vote or are they enough to outnumber these illiterate folks? Remember, it is said that democracy is a game of numbers; if the illiterates outweigh the literates, our recruitment process in this way will always produce something defective.